Listening Leadership: Getting Down on the Shop Floor

Leaders – get down on the shop floor. Walk and talk and listen. You’ll be surprised what everyone can learn.

There seems to be no shortage of books, articles, advice and wisdom on leadership styles and the characteristics of good leaders. Yet it seems that one small, but valuable, behaviour is often missing – or at best limited in practise. Particularly during organisational change and development. Getting down on the shop floor.

In using an analogy : when our son was small he often demanded that at playtime we, his family, ‘get down on the floor’ and join him on the family-room carpet in whatever he was playing with at that moment: making castles from wooden bricks, building Lego or Brio trains or simply drawing… 

Of course a small child’s world operates at that level and that we, as grown-ups, in encouraging play, fun and learning engaged with our son in his world, at his level.

Is there a parallel to ‘getting down on the floor’ with staff in the workplace? From experiences over the years it seems there is. Its getting down on the shop floor!

Experience of one Managing Director

Throughout a series of intense training days at one client the Managing Director, unfailing, turned up at the end of every session. He asked the teams operations management techniques they had learned that day; what were the implications for them in applying the methods; and what time and resources did they all need in taking the training through to application. He went on to get involved with many of the projects on the shop-floor and coached a number of the team that wanted to improve their skills and knowledge.

It was evident at discussion sessions during the training that the time taken by their Managing Director encouraged all those involved that this was more than just another ‘training initiative’. His support and presence was significantly encouraging when projects did not always turn out as expected. And also validated those that were successful.

Interview with a Quality Manager

An extract from an interview with David Jefferies, Quality Manager at fabricators G R Carr, in Basildon, highlights some of his experiences. David explains: ‘As a company we have been successful in the petro-chemical and oil storage sectors in the supply and installation of piping and structural steel. But we knew this industry was facing uncertainty. So we looked at the emerging new-build nuclear power generation market such as Hinckley C power station. Our current clients are quality conscious. However, moving into the nuclear supply chain meant we had to improve our production processes and quality systems even more.’  

So a four year training, development and change programme was started. During this time David Jefferies led on many of the projects.

David continues: ‘It is just not possible to lead from behind a desk or from an office. What is important is the time spent out in the yard or paint and fabrication shops and chatting to the operations teams, such as welders and fitters, about their challenges and successes. At first people were not only learning new methods but also a new language that went with these methods. Added to this was the fact that in the past people were employed just for their craft skills. Now they were being asked to make decisions and get involved with improvements. They were often self-conscious as this was not what they had grown up with in our traditional market place. One of our paint shop team described it as “using grown-up language”. But nuclear is stringent and different in both terminology and techniques.

Four years on and the first nuclear sector work is starting to flow. Part of the success is both directors and managers consciously taking time in the day, every day, in getting out on the floor with the teams. Asking questions, encouraging learning and staff taking initiatives rather than “telling” them what to do’.

David concludes: ‘Everyone has needed to “unlearn” behaviours and start again. One key success factor is consciously “getting down on the shop floor” and talking with staff and uncovering their concerns and likewise rewarding and acknowledging successes’. The picture at the top of this article shows David getting down on the shop floor with apprentices at G R Carr Basildon

In Conclusion

So although the time of managers and senior management teams is naturally taken up with spreadsheets, budgets, strategic plans and meetings can we afford not to take time in busy schedules and just talk, really talk, with staff? Get down on the shop floor. Walk and talk and listen. You’ll be surprised what everyone can learn.

Further Reading:

Five benefits of walking the ‘shop floor’

Gemba Walk: Where the Real Work Happens

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